For a man of few words, “Silent Sam” has caused his share of grief – more than a century’s worth. The moniker refers to a statue of a Confederate soldier placed in 1913 at the University of North Carolina. It hasn’t been a peaceful watch since then.
Sam’s martial gaze was so unbearable to activists at UNC that, after years of mounting protests, they managed to knock him off his pedestal. (Not a small feat, considering bronze weighs 541 lbs. per cubic foot and Silent Sam is a good-sized fellow.)
Daughters of the Confederacy (Sam’s godmothers) may have been grieved but not surprised, with Civil War memorials under fierce attack. Many have been removed or damaged by students or activists, who claim their very presence is a statement in support of slavery and racism.
Sam was a monument to Civil War veterans from UNC, most of whom served in the Confederacy, a body many would like to forget now. That may be understandable, although it is unalterable history. It’s also an awfully long time to carry a 158-year grudge. Other than pettiness, the real problem is insisting on erasing knowledge of the Confederacy – or anything else – from our collective unconscious.
Is this ever a good thing? Maybe it is when my team does it and not yours, or if we are the conquerors or they were the oppressors. Some type of damnatio memoriae (erasing memory of the cursed) is latent in most of us. It’s ancient, tribal, almost instinctual, and present to some extent in every tribe and nation.
Here’s proof, straight from history books and current memory:
Romans razed anything and anyone who posed a threat to military or political conquest. They first created the term damnatio memoriae, issuing official orders to erase images, names, tombs and records of the no-longer-appreciated. Mongols gutted Bagdad of its treasures until it was nothing but sand. Then there were Vandals, Vikings, Goths, Ottomans and many more.
Sam serves as a lightning rod for friction and controversy, inspiring protests, polemics and art events. Poet John Beecher “debated” Silent Sam (as an imaginary, Socratic-style opponent) in 1967. Beecher, who descended from famed abolitionists including Harriet Beecher Stowe, read from his book “To Live and Die in Dixie” at UNC. Contempt was vicariously poured on Silent Sam after Martin Luther King’s death and during Rodney King’s trial, exponentially expanding since about 2014.
If anything, the saga of Sam proves that people have strong reactions to public art, especially when they hate it – so much that UNC spent $390,000 on security for the bronze sore spot during the 2017-2018 school year alone.
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Coming from a more tolerant era, most of us were shocked at the allegedly religious wrath from ISIS and Taliban. Churches, museums and towering Buddhas fell at their feet with no apology from warriors against art and history.
Yet many of us cheered when Romanians pulled down every trace of their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Iraqis pounded the (stone) faces of Saddam Hussein in the dust. Same for Stalin, Lenin and Marx, who repeatedly bit the dust in Georgia while the liberal and free world applauded. America’s experiments in iconoclasm go back to Revolutionary days when the Sons of Liberty toppled a statue of George III in 1776. (They melted it down for bullets – an extra shot at George).
But Silent Sam is a symbol of the Confederacy and a tortuous, evil time. It recalls division, slavery, racism and death. Complicating everything is a stream of valor and high-mindedness over it all. Men from both armies were often brave, patriotic, zealous, cultured, religious and even chivalrous. There are at least 1700 or more symbols to the Confederacy in America, and 110 have been removed already. Will obliterating all memory of the past make the core issues better or heal us of the past?
Both UNC and the Daughters of the Confederacy (sponsors) claimed to have no intention to promote racism or ill-feeling at the time. Sculptor John A. Wilson was a Canadian. By contrast, local industrialist Julian Carr, who was a Confederate veteran, gave a nasty, racially charged address at its dedication. Silent Sam’s forging may have been based in a certain amount of resentment over the War and destruction to the South, even racism. Who really knows?
Here are the words on the plaque beneath the monument itself:
To the sons of the University
who entered the War of 1861-65
in answer to the call of their
country and whose lives
taught the lesson of
their Great Commander that
Duty is the sublimest word
in the English language.
Fallout from the minor student coup on Aug. 20 was a few arrests and a somewhat divided campus. Many students wished the statue would be placed in a museum or somewhere else, not necessarily destroyed.
UNC board members issued this statement: “We are a nation of laws – and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.” Guarantying the future of protests at UNC, their board of governors declared on August 25 that Silent Sam will be reinstalled within 90 days.
Tribulations of UNC’s monument extend to thousands of historical and religious markers in the U.S., all under fire for different reasons. This controversary seems to prove at least one thing: while art may be valuable, and some art considered sacred, it certainly isn’t all equal.